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The Center for Undergraduate Research & Fellowships is located in the ARCH building.

Credit: Kylie Cooper

Students and faculty involved in the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program have been pleasantly surprised with the virtual program this summer, despite initial worries about how in-person research would transition to an online format.

PURM is a ten-week summer program that allows rising sophomores and juniors to conduct research with a Penn faculty member. In April, the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships announced the program would be conducted online shortly after the University had declared that summer academic sessions would be taught remotely.   

While PURM participants said they are disappointed that they are unable to conduct research in person, they remain optimistic about their projects and appreciate how faculty mentors have worked to provide meaningful research opportunities this summer regardless of the circumstances. 

Although Rising College sophomore Michelle Mahecha Perez began her work with psychology professor John Trueswell on speech perception and language learning, the premise of her PURM study was soon entirely modified to suit a remote research model.

Originally, Mahecha Perez and the rest of Trueswell’s team planned to research how patterns of rhythm and sound in speech affected babies. Once PURM went online, the team instead created speech experiments for English and Mandarin speakers to study the their own languages.

While Mahecha Perez was looking forward to the initial intended research project, she said she is grateful they were able to transition the research to a virtual format.

“They wanted to give the students some sort of experience, even though it’s not the fullest experience,” she said. 

School of Veterinary Medicine immunology professor Jennifer Punt said she also had to adjust the work her students are doing on dog immunology to focus more on analyzing data rather than conducting physical experiments. So far, Punt said, the transition has worked well.

Rising Wharton sophomore Ariana Freire said her research with assistant management professor Samir Nurmohamed on organizational behavior has worked better than she expected in a virtual format. 

She said that not being in person, however, has some major disadvantages, including the social aspect of getting to know other researchers on the same project.

Mahecha Perez said that despite the relative success in moving the research project online, she has found it difficult to stay engaged with remote work. She added that the virtual aspect of the program makes it hard to create beneficial connections with others on her team.

While she appreciates having the opportunity to gain exposure to her peers' research in fields of cognitive science and psychology through MindCORE, she would like to see the work that students from other departments are doing this summer.

Despite some drawbacks of online research, both Freire and Mahecha Perez commended their professors for their ability to keep the projects organized and engage their student research assistants. 

To combat the lack of in-person interaction this summer, Nurmohamed conducts weekly pairings between members of his student research team, in which they are randomly assigned to one another to get to know on a more personal level.

“I really appreciate the fact that Professor Nurmohamed is making the effort to make this more personal and not just something that we all go through behind the screen,” Freire said.

Professor Punt said she tries to meet with her students everyday over Zoom in the morning and afternoon, and has them present their work on Friday to keep them engaged. To make up for not having in-person lab experiences, she is also conducting weekly virtual labs to help her students understand hands-on methods. She said that being flexible and getting feedback from her students has been important in the first few weeks of the program.

“The expectations have to adjust, and they have to evolve over time,” Punt said. 

Professor Trueswell said that in addition to weekly meetings he has with his researchers to discuss their projects, he has encouraged them to attend lab meetings with peer researchers to allow them to see the broader context of their work. He said he hopes this keeps them motivated in their work, although it can be difficult to do so from home. 

To help students stay engaged with the program , PURM has developed avenues for students to communicate with each other. Senior Associate Director for CURF Ann Vernon-Grey said CURF has created Google groups for students, and is conducting a series of virtual professional development summer sessions for students. 

Last week, PURM partnered with Career Services in an online session to teach students about creating and maintaining professional networks. Vernon-Grey said that although CURF would have done these sessions even if the program had run in person, she believes more students are attending these sessions because they can access them remotely. 

Freire said she appreciates PURM’s effort to help students who need professional development workshops, but thinks CURF could be doing more for PURM participants. She said she would like to gain exposure to the research and literature of students conducting summer research in departments unrelated to her own, and added that CURF could implement sessions where students discuss their research with each other.

Both Punt and Trueswell said they hope that their students gain meaningful analytical and research skills from the program, and have been impressed with how their students have adjusted to a remote format.

“What has surprised me the most is the resilience of the student,” Trueswell said.  

Trueswell believes this summer may have long term impacts on how research is conducted at Penn in the future.

“This could open the possibility of collecting data from groups that for instance can’t easily come to the lab either because of financial reasons or distance. Some fundamental changes are going to happen that way,” Trueswell said.